Gone are the days when Nepalis only consumed meat during special occasions like Dashain, Tihar, weddings and parties. The social taboo against the consumption of chicken products in the Brahmin and Chhetri communities is also no longer in favor. Many people have now started to consume chicken meat as our average meat intake continues to rise.
Huge production of meat including mutton and chicken both commercially and in households over the past decades, has not only contributed to the change in food habits of the people, but also improved nutritional values in the food composition. With wider acceptance of meat by people, suppliers are reported to have failed to fulfill increasing demand. They are trying their best to increase production by hook or crook. Unscrupulous farmers have even started injecting their animals and birds with boat loads of antibiotics.
But doctors have found evidence that the consumption of such adulterated meat products can create many health hazards. At this time, when doctors are recommending people to consume healthier meats, and the consumers are complaining about the lack of meat options, entrepreneur Ujjawal Chapagain has identified a need in the market, and decided to introduce rabbit meat to the Nepali palate.
Chapagain, originally from Dhading district, has come up with the innovative idea very timely. For the first time in the country, he has started commercial rabbit farming. He brought rabbit meat in the market to capitalize on the demand for a healthy meat option with different taste than that of common meat. He shares that those who have consumed rabbit meat usually become very fond of it. Such fancy for the white meat is not only because of its unique taste but also from the health benefits it promises. However, this innovation in the meat market in the form of commercial rabbit farming has yet to gain sustainability, and build a value chain of stakeholders including producers, suppliers and consumers.
Rabbit Farming in Nepal
Subsistence farmers in Nepal have been traditionally involved in rabbit rearing since ages. Rabbit hunting is a long-held practice in and around forest areas either for adventure or for its meat, skin and fur. However, rabbit farming was never commercial before Chapagain took the initiative.
Himalayan Rabbit Farm (HRF) was founded by Chapagain and is located at Balambulay, three-kilometers North West of Kalanki Chowkin Kathmandu. HRF started with 30 rabbits in 2012 and has now over 600 rabbits in a land area of five ropanis (2,600 sq meters).
The rabbits in the farm nibble on nutritious blades of grasses produced in the nearby steep terraces and grow rapidly. A newborn rabbit gets ready for meat within four months. Once the rabbits are ready for meat, and before their meat are sent to the market, they are processed at a small processing plant installed at HRF. Rabbit meat is delivered to different retailers including restaurants in Thamel and similar tourist hubs in Kathmandu.
Earlier, rabbit meat was only served to foreigners, but Nepalis have also started developing a palate for this meat lately, according to restaurateurs. In addition, suppliers of the rabbit meat have increased along with increases in the number of people who have recently acquired this new taste.
In the global market, many countries have already established a long experience of rabbit farming. Italy, France, Spain, China, and India are the major rabbit meat producing countries in the world. A large section of population there are enjoying rabbit meat since they claim that the white meat is healthier than others.
In Nepal, people have been rearing rabbits for their companionship as the animal is cute in appearance and kind in nature. Due to its lovely look, people shun consuming its meat despite the absence of other cultural restrictions.
Following the launch of commercial rabbit farming by HRF, the market for rabbit meat, which was once limited to restaurants in the Thamel area of Kathmandu, has expanded to other tourist hubs in and outside the valley.
A kilogram of rabbit meat costs Rs 800. Though the price of mutton and rabbit hovers at the same level the latter offers more value in terms of nutrition and health benefits. Currently, HRF supplies 150 kg meat every month to high end restaurants in Kathmandu. This level of production will not suffice the market demand as acceptance of rabbit meat grows.
The introduction of rabbit meat in the Nepali market over the past two years has paved the way in changing people’s perception about consumption of rabbit meat. Quite a few Nepali consumers have begun to learn not only about the availability of rabbit meat in the market but also about various benefits they can reap with its consumption.
Still, many Nepalis remain unaware of this new experience. According to concerned stakeholders, activities like marketing and the scaling up of rabbit farms in the country can boost market penetration. Having realized this, founder Chapagain has more recently focused most of his efforts in the marketing of the white meat.
Chapagain has not yet invested in any form of formal adverting but has participated in food stalls and exhibitions to promote the acceptance of rabbit meat as a food source and create awareness about its benefits. He also works with a few good restaurants in Kathmandu valley as a way of entering the market and has helped them introduce rabbit dishes to their menu.
“Rabbit meat is a totally new product, so my focus has been on stimulating the sales of the meat through different campaigns,” he says.
In a recent exhibition held in Bhrikuti Mandap, Himalayan Rabbit Farm had offered visitors a free rabbit meat tasting opportunity in collaboration with BajekoSekuwa, one of the more renowned restaurant-chains in the capital. Almost every visitor who tasted the meat left with a new found appreciation for its flavor and texture. For Chapagain, such events have worked wonderfully to promote his product as they significantly raise awareness among people about the availability of rabbit meat and its nutritional values.
HRF had organized similar meat tasting events in the past in collaboration with various high-end restaurants like Babar Mahal’s Chez Caroline, PaniPokhari’s Le Sherpa, and Thamel’s Delices de France. These restaurants have also included rabbit meat in their menu, and serve them to their customers regularly.
Around a decade ago, the National Agriculture Research Council (NARC) imported two different breeds of rabbits, namely Soviet Chinchilla and New Zealand White, in order to carry out a research to determine the feasibility of rabbit farming. Some attempts at commercial rabbit farming then could not succeed due to various reasons, all of which have probably not yet been understood. Himalayan Rabbit Farm also started with the same breeds and has thrived in the last two years. The significant progress made by Himalayan Rabbit Farming within such a short span of time is indicative of the huge prospects and possibilities in the industry.
Research has shown that rabbit meat, when compared to others, has significant health and nutritional benefits. A report by the United States Department of Agriculture claims that rabbit meat is the ‘most nutritious meat available’ and ‘it’s a healthy alternative for those watching their diet’. Different studies have also revealed that rabbit meat has the highest percentage of protein content and the lowest percentage of fats and cholesterol. Most importantly, it is the best white meat and an excellent choice for people suffering with diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.
Damodar Neupane, coordinator of the Swine and Bovine Research Program at NARC has mentioned that high protein and low cholesterol containing rabbit meat is quite popular among the foreign tourists in Kathmandu, in an article published in ‘The Himalayan Times’ national news daily. He made further claims that the meat is also beginning to attract Nepali consumers in recent days.
In addition, there is a possibility of earning extra money from the tanning of rabbit hides. They can be used for producing handicraft items like women’s bags and fur jackets.
Chapagain is not alone in his endeavor to scale up the rabbit farming business. Nepal Agriculture Research Council has been providing support for improving traditional farming method and scaling up rabbit rearing by small-farmers.
Likewise, other government bodies, Micro-Enterprise Development Program (MEDEP), and SANGAM Myagdi, a local NGO in western Nepal, have started providing support to small-scale farmers who want to increase their rabbit production and scale-up.
Chapagain has trained over a hundred farmers from Dolkha, Sindhuli and Myagdi districts on how rabbit farming can be a source of income and better nutrition for entire families.
To sum up, rabbit farming, as a new industry in the country, is both challenging and risky. But the triumph of Himalayan Rabbit Farm has raised hopes of the farmers and encouraged all other stakeholders and entrepreneurs involved.
The innovative idea of starting a commercial rabbit farm, whose inspiration founder Chapagain gathered from African Rabbit Industries, has proved successful hitherto and promises to deliver much more.
Today, rabbit farming has become a lucrative business that can be started with a small investment. Apart from those in Kathmandu, farmers in Myagdi, Kaski, Parbat and Lalitpur districts have also started generating income through this type of farming.
As such, it may be high time for concerned agencies to carry out researches and take strategic steps towards strengthening the value chain of producers, suppliers and consumers. Such actions could create a more favorable business environment and attract more newcomers into the industry.